“I’ve got my Justin Bieber mask on”

I feel like I have to state my position on Justin Bieber in general terms before I say anything about his new book, First Step 2 Forever. The Canadian pop singer is a child of the social media revolution, discovered through YouTube and catapulted into a position as one of the pop world’s most polarizing stars through Twitter. Although it makes me feel old to admit it, that was actually how I first heard of him, too. He had floated somewhere just below my radar for quite a while when this I was here when Justin Bieber wasn’t trending meme became a trending topic on Twitter. My curiosity teased, I felt like I had to find out who this guy actually was, and what I found surprised me. There were these deep pockets of downright vitriol for this 16 year-old pop star, and many people seemed almost personally offended by him and his success. Sure, it may be that such sentiments have always been out there, but that they only now have been given a forum to infiltrate the broader pop culture discourse. I didn’t yet know what I was going to think of his music, but I promised myself that even if I did end up hating it, I would at least try to articulate some actual reasons for my position, and to separate what I thought about the music from what I thought about Justin Bieber, the personality.

I hope that Bieber’s music would have won me over eventually anyway, but when I ended up solidly in the pro-Bieber camp, I wouldn’t discard the intensity of the Bieber backlash as a factor that convinced me to give him some time when My World left me underwhelmed at first. And sure enough; after having gone the traditional route, which means getting Baby stuck on your brain for weeks, I moved on to the rest of the record – Common Denominator, Stuck In The Moment, Somebody To Love, Never Let You Go, Love Me– and he won me over, hook by hook. Initially, however, I didn’t think that would be enough to convince me to buy his book. Sure, I liked his music and I was fascinated with him as a pop cultural phenomenon – but a book, and one titled First Step 2 Forever?

Well, yes. And as it turns out, the title is actually one of the best things about the book. No, not First Step 2 Forever, but the subtitle: My Story. Reading First Step, you’ll notice that the tagline makes it much easier to accept what you’re offered. This isn’t, after all, a traditional autobiography, although it aspires to cover most of Bieber’s life. Rather, it is, precisely, a story, with its connotations of something archetypical and common, and its freedom to iron out the ups and downs of someone who hasn’t actually been on the scene long enough to have experienced an equal share of both. It’s become an easily recognizable and and even more easily marketable tale of the rise and fall of a teen pop sensation, only without the fall.  Nowhere is Bieber’s real life story and the implicit marketability of his quick rise to global popularity more expertly woven together than in this quote, in which Bieber explains that whenever he feels a little down, all he has to do is reach for a taste of the undying Bieber fever that is out there:

During the second half of 2009, we traveled all over the world, seeing so many beautiful places, meeting so many terrific fans. I know this all sounds like fun, but there was plenty of times I was so exhausted I felt like I was losing myself. But I guess what kept me going was knowing how much my mother sacrificed for me to chase my dream, how hard my team worked to make this happen and just seeing the excited faces of my fans all around the world. Even in my worst moments, you all seem to lift me up. (p. 191)

In many ways, this quote encapsulates the entire ethos of the book. Most importantly, it’s not only a book for the fans, it’s a book written, at times literally, to the fans. Instead of a foreword, or even acknowledgments, there is A Special DM To The Greates Fans In The World!, and throughout the book he returns to the feedback that he has gotten from fans and supporters, always making sure to let them know that he couldn’t have done it without them. It also explains both the choice to forego the traditional autobiography format for a personal story, and the remarkable absence of any hint of darkness or self-doubt from the story. “That’s why I want to share this story with you; so you can experience the journey with me, all the highs and lows, the laughter and the tears,” he says in the fan message, and by that he underlines how it was the correct decision to play it safe, to make it a book mostly for the fans.

There are very few tears and even fewer lows in this, and how could there be, in a career that has only been a meteoric rise thus far. More than a story with a clear narrative, it’s an invitation to come along for the next part of the ride. The book ends, literally with Bieber saying, “[t]his is just the beginning,” and the title stems from Usher, Bieber’s mentor, saying at the start of the first 85 show tour: “[W]hen you get to number eighty-five, you’ll be so seasoned, you’ll be recognized as being a forever artist – not a flash in the pan – and the next step is a big world tour. This is the first step to forever, man. (p. 136)”. Embracing the point that this story is nowhere near over, and smartly incorporating Bieber catchphrases like “Never Say Never”, the book not only makes the fans feel special, it even feels a little like the Justin Bieber equivalent to a book like Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope:  It’s as concerned about getting you to commit to what comes next as it is about telling a compelling story that will strengthen your loyalty.

Apart from the quoted bit about how fans lift him up whenever he feels overwhelmed it all, the only other visible downside to life as a pop star is you have to be patient. (“That was probably the hardest lesson for me to learn when I was trying to break into this business. Patience. Pacing,” p. 139.). A teenager who’s been told that he’s been signed by a major label wants to get his name out there and start selling records, doing shows and get a tour bus with a Playstation (“Weeks turned into months. This was probably the hardest part about the whole thing: waiting. And waiting. And waiting.”, p. 151) I’m sure this is how a book written to fans is supposed to be. They want to hear how much he loves being a pop star, and how the reason he loves it is because they love him. But personally, remembering some of the Bieber-style pop sensations that burned out quickly, I would have liked it if he gave us a little closer look at the real challenges a phenomenon of this magnitude may face. Like I said, it’s not like his big breakthrough has been met with universal admiration. The anti-Bieber Twitter campaign struck me as so vitriolic that it could have been interesting, even a little comforting, to have him address it. Incidentally, Twitter messages pop up on every other page, but the closest he comes to tackling the issue is a list of conversation starters.

I don’t really care about how much of this book is ghostwritten, or how Bieber’s thoughts were transcribed to the page. And I guess I shouldn’t really hold it against him that even the parts that feel most like they could have been written by a 16 year old – the story of how Bieber world screeched to a maddening halt when he failed to get his drivers’ license on the first try, for instance – somehow feels a little too conveniently disarming, almost like you can see how it was included to pre-emptively push back against charges that First Step 2 Forever reads as too polished to be Bieber’s own story. Neither these  ‘he’s just like any other normal Canadian 16 year old’ snippets nor the main narrative itself bothers me much, but clumsy writing does. And  there is something glaringly wrong about the tone of the opening paragraph of the second chapter, which reads more like a magazine profile than a first-person biographical story:

The day I was born, 1 March 1994, Celine Dion was solid at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with ‘The Power of Love’. Not a bad song to start your life on. My musical director Dan Kanter, whose guilty pleasure is Celine Dion, must have been really excited that day. It was all over the radio, so I probably heard her belt it out before I even got my first look at the blue sky over Stratford, Ontario. My hometown is 2,450 miles northeast of Los Angeles, 530 miles northwest of New York City, 1,312 miles due north of Disney World, and totally on the other side of the world from Tokyo. But that day, people all over the planet were listening to Celine Dion and loving it. (p. 26)

It’s all in that last sentence. “…that day, people all over the planet were listening to Celine Dion and loving it.” It’s like Bieber is trying to see himself with the eyes of an outsider, or the lens of a historian – from the very first day of his life! I know the tonal dissonance isn’t supposed to matter, and that the target audience won’t care. But for me, it nonetheless breaks the illusion that this is really Bieber’s voice. If a big word like authenticity is ever applicable to this genre, it’s hard to find in this chapter, and it alerts my cynicism filter for the remainder of the book. Elsewhere, perhaps in an attempt to make it feel more authentic, irreverent and unfiltered, it’s just clumsily written: “At first I didn’t know if I wanted them to be part of my wolf pack. But as soon as I got to know them, I definitely wanted them to be part of my wolf pack. (p. 180)”

However, for a book seemingly intent on even taking a macro perspective to the birth of its hero, it is otherwise quite narrowly focused on Bieber himself. When that story –  ripe as it is with fascinating lucky breaks (he was discovered on YouTube, after all), charming tales of how even someone like Bieber starting his singing career as a street musician, and aspiring promises of reward if you only work hard enough – is never quite engaging, I think it has to do with how Bieber’s constant pledge of allegiance to family, country (“I’m a proud Canadian, and I hope that comes through in everything I do,”) fans and God (“I like when people ask me about my religion. (Because I love God, and I don’t want to miss an opportunity to share that,))” hews just a little too closely to what I’d imagine a PR person at his label would want him to say. Of course, I have no reason to believe that Bieber doesn’t really mean what he’s saying, but he rattles it off in such a meticulously disciplined fashion that my cynical half is tempted to ask who he really answers to, Island Def Jam or himself? It’s almost like he’s wearing his Justin Bieber mask, staying pointedly on message and out of territory that might actually tell us something about him or his life that’s not already focus-grouped by Bieber bloggers and the public morality caucus.

On a different note, but speaking of Island Def Jam, that record label is met with a dose of instinctive skepticism from any Hanson fan. Known to Fansons as the company that tried to streamline the Tulsa trio into just your average rock band (Hanson eventually broke out and launched their own independent label), I was interested in how Bieber presented his experiences with going corporate. And although this part too reads like a corporately vetted miracle story (which isn’t to say that it can’t be true, only that it’s convenient), the story about how Bieber and his label worked to establish his brand was to me the most interesting chapter of the book. This is where Bieber admits that the roll-out strategy made him impatient, and where, when lavishing praise on Michael Jackson, we learn that his total dominance of the pop-cultural consciousness sort screwed up his launch. While I came away impressed about how business-savvy this guy seems, I was also somewhat heartened to learn that he can still be a wide-eyed, celebrity-crazed teen who gets a kick (and more) out of inhabiting the glitzy world of people like Justin Timberlake, Usher and Beyoncê. For a moment there, I let my guard down.

A good part of that glamour actually flows from the pages of this book. Despite what impression this review might give you, the words are not really the central component to Bieber’s story. It’s the pictures, and there are hundreds of them, as taken by Robert Caplin. If I’m not sure whether the somewhat calculated prose did make me any wiser when it comes to understanding what it really means to be the center of Bieber world, Caplin’s photos go a long way. That‘s where the performer and teenybopper heartthrob really steps forward. In a wise move sure to please his fan base, the book is pretty much structured around the pictures, rather than the other way around. The result is a book that looks much better than it reads, complete with instructions on the front flap for how to make the most of your copy of First Step 2 Forever: “Remove this cover to reveal your exclusive poster of me.”

A final note: For all you teen queens out there thinking that Bieber were winking at you when he said, in the Special DM To The Greatest Fans In The World – “Every one of you is ‘My Favorite Girl’ for a different reason, because each of you is special in your own way” – there’s this: “I bet 95% of of all  sixteen-year-old guys would admit to thinking forty-five girl-related thoughts every three minutes. (The other 5% would be lying.)” If you say so.

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2 Responses to “I’ve got my Justin Bieber mask on”

  1. Bryan Borland says:

    What a powerhouse essay! This is one of those pieces that could easily appear in Rolling Stone. And thanks a lot – now you’ve got “Baby” stuck in my head all over again. I go back and forth on Bieber. He’s fun to watch, I’ll give him that. You’re not kidding on the hooks – they call them that for a reason… because they draw blood.

  2. Chef E says:

    LOL I love how you end this! You are a great essay writer Jorgen! A power house in your own right!

    I will refrain from making a comment on this one- since I feel any artist who does not play an instrument seems to be manufactured in some way- sure a great voice is good, but he is so young! I blame the people above him, Usher, who want to make money so they find talent with a cute face.

    I was never a pop music fan, but I have to admit- The Hanson are a rare breed these days…and they play instruments! Oh and can dance…Bieber was born on Anelisa’s birthday, so I give him that. LOL

    Enough said.

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